Fluoridation of the city’s water supply will likely begin in about six weeks, according to Bernadette Coelho, spokeswoman for Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz Jr.
Information about the decision to add one part fluoride per million to the city’s water supply will be distributed in water bills once the necessary modifications are made to the water system, Ms. Coelho said. A full public notification process will be undertaken before the fluoride is added, she said.
The cost of revamping the city’s out-of-date fluoridation equipment was $85,000, a significant portion of which will be reimbursed by the state, according to City Solicitor Matthew J. Thomas.
New Bedford provides water to 3,600 customers in Acushnet and 189 customers in Freetown. The city also has formal agreements to provide water to Dartmouth and Freetown in case of emergencies, and an informal agreement to provide water to Fairhaven.
This past week, because of a water main break, all the water in Fairhaven was coming from New Bedford.
Currently, Fall River and Taunton add fluoride to their water. But New Bedford’s decision to fluoridate means that in the future, water users in those towns with water-sharing agreements with city could unwittingly be getting water with fluoride, albeit temporarily, despite the fact that none of the towns in South Coast adds fluoride to their water supply.
Robert F. Davis, the city’s director of public health, said the board made fluoridation a priority when he was hired in 2002. “Dental health in New Bedford, particularly in the most vulnerable kids, is poor, and it is imminently preventable,” he said. “There is proof that fluoride prevents cavities and even reverses the decaying process.”
He said a third of the city’s 8-year-olds who go to the free dental clinic at the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center and Dental Clinic require immediate care. The day he was pursuing state officials to pay for the upgrade to the city’s fluoridation equipment, he said, a second-grader came to the clinic and required a full mouth extraction.
The city’s Board of Health approved fluoridation in February 2004.
Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz Jr. said that, after meeting with Board of Health chairwoman Dr. Patricia L. Andrade, he agreed fluoridation is the right way to go.
“After conversations with the Board of Health and Dr. Andrade it became clear to me that there are many families in our community unable to even pay for milk to give their children for dinner and the only way they would be able to get fluoride is through the water,” he said.
Arguments in favor of fluoridation also come from health professionals like Dr. Stewart I. Forman, president and chief executive officer of the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center and Community Dental Center. In his argument for fluoridation, he cites the American Dental Association, which recently stated that adding fluoride to the water supply is its accepted policy “in the interest of public health.”
He said the city’s children have a high incidence of tooth decay and that the city is dramatically underserved by dentists. U.S. Department of Public Health guidelines say an urban population is underserved when it has no more than one dentist per 3,500 patients.
The dental clinic in New Bedford is serving a population with one dentist per 13,505 people, Dr. Foreman said. Proponents say fluoride can prevent and even reverse tooth decay. Providing fluoride in the public water supply is one way to ensure that the city’s poorest residents get fluoride.
Hundreds of cities throughout the country, including every major city in Massachusetts except Worcester and New Bedford, add fluoride to their water supplies.
But there are arguments against fluoride.
Opponents say putting fluoride in the water amounts to mass medication, and that fluoride causes myriad health problems, including increased incidence of arthritis, joint pain and even cancer.
“It’s a toxic element,” said Dr. Mark Grenier, a dentist in Dartmouth, about fluoride. “It’s toxic waste and it’s poisonous. We don’t need fluoride for good dental health, which comes from proper oral hygiene and good eating habits. I’m not sure there are any benefits. I believe the side effects are worse than any of the supposed benefits.”
The issue of fluoridation was hotly contested in New Bedford in the 1970s with lawsuits, public referendums and much debate. Conspiracy theorists believed fluoridation was a Communist plot to weaken Americans’ health, but health professionals were adamant that fluoride had significant and proven dental health benefits.
New Bedford voters approved a referendum in favor of fluoridation in 1973, but it took the city until 1978 to begin adding fluoride to the water.
Ronald A.J. DeMello, an activist who later ran for political office, launched a campaign to overturn the decision and he successfully led a charge to stop fluoridating the city’s water. In a second referendum in 1979, voters disapproved fluoridation by a 2-to-1 margin.
A group of 16 city residents and the American Dental Society sued the city to keep fluoride in the water, but a Superior Court judge ruled that the voters’ rejection of fluoridation should stand. On May 5, 1980, the supply of fluoride was cut off, less than two years after it began.
This time around, fluoridation was approved with hardly a whimper and little debate.
The Board of Health had numerous discussions on the benefits of fluoridation, Mr. Davis said, and held a public hearing.
After the board’s vote, the decision to fluoridate was posted publicly, including a legal advertisement in The Standard-Times and copies in City Hall. After the 90-day appeal period passed, the vote became law, and the city began implementing the decision.
Mr. Thomas, the city solicitor, said the city girded itself for opposition to fluoridation, but none came.
“Frankly, that’s a victory for the city’s children, because now low- to moderate-income families have a shot at decent dental health,” he said. “We saw this as a significant public health action.”